Next time you’re driving to Montana, perhaps on your way to Yellowstone National Park, be sure to take a side trip to historic Bannack State Park. This wonderfully preserved ghost town of over 50 buildings is located in the lonely southwest corner of the state, far from major cities or Interstate highways. A visit to remote Bannack is like walking through a Western movie set, except that the buildings are authentic. Many of the structures along the main street are over 125 years of age, preserved in part by Montana’s dry climate. The Bannack experience is further enhanced by the fact that there are no cars, curio shops or other commercialization. It is the real deal — tumbleweeds, dust devils, squeaky floorboards and all.
Bannack began as a rough mining camp after gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek in 1862. Tents and crude wooden buildings were quickly erected to serve the influx of miners scrambling to pan and sluice gleaming nuggets from the small but bountiful creek. When the population swelled into the thousands they named the camp Bannack, and for a short time it served as the capital of the newly recognized Territory of Montana. Crude shelters were replaced with more permanent buildings, including a post office, school, jail, assay offices, hotel, boarding houses, brewery and, of course, several saloons.
When Grasshopper Creek was exhausted of surface gold, the miners began digging into the surrounding hills and using hydraulic methods to mine the stream bed more deeply. But when gold was discovered at Virginia City about 100 miles to the east, many stampeded out of Bannack as quickly as they had arrived. Those who remained saw the first hulking dredges assembled to gnaw ever deeper into the gold-bearing gravel.
Mining continued off-and-on at Bannack for over a half-century, but the dwindling yield and depressed gold prices eventually led to the complete abandonment of the town in the late 1940s. Preservation-minded groups helped keep the cluster of historic buildings from being destroyed until, in 1954, the ghost town was preserved as Bannack State Park.
Many of the photogenic old buildings have been roofed and stabilized, but in the spirit of authenticity there has been very little restoration. Faded wallpaper hangs in tattered shreds from interior walls. Weathered doors swing on hundred year old hinges. Windows of wavy antique glass face the street, where you halfway expect to see Clint Eastwood or Marshall Dillon step out from the shadows with pistols drawn.
The entire town is protected and managed as a state park whose gates open daily at 8:00 a.m. year-round, weather permitting. Visitors are free to wander the streets and enter many of the old buildings. Rusty mining equipment and other historic objects are arrayed. Inside the park’s small visitor center videos, books, and other interpretive materials are available for purchase.
Bannack is located about 25 miles southwest of Dillon, Montana. From Interstate 15, exit on Highway 278, drive west 17 miles, then south on Bannack Bench Road four miles to the parking lot outside the ghost town. Vehicles are not allowed on the streets of Bannack; all exploration must be done on foot. Two primitive campgrounds are located just outside the historic district. For further information, click http://stateparks.mt.gov/bannack/.